How to Clean Baked-On Brake Dust

How to Clean Baked-On Brake Dust

Every detailer knows how brake dust builds up over time. While those pesky brown specks look unappealing, other effects they have on your wheels spell trouble. If unaddressed, brake dust wears down and corrodes your wheels. Preventing brake dust build up is not easy; after all, it occurs in one of the most difficult areas to detail.

Fortunately, we have some tips and tricks on how to clean these hard-to-reach regions. In this post we’ll discuss several methods and products that successfully remove baked on brake dust, including: the use of household items, commercially produced products, and alternative tools to get the job done.

Most detailers choose between household and commercially produced products when removing brake dust. There are considerations to follow when using either, all offering unique benefits and drawbacks. We recommend commercially produced products for almost every detailing application, but here are some commonly used household solutions:

The use of household items

It’s likely your kitchen has products needed to remove your car’s baked on brake dust. Commonly owned staples such as soap, vinegar, and baking soda lift off tough grime found on most surfaces.  

Dish detergent and baking soda

Dish detergent and water can tackle grease and grime on dinner plates; the solution can do the same for your rims. These are non-acidic degreasers; as such, they are one of the safer household substances to use on your wheels. That said, detergent-based solutions may not remove all grime. Most automotive wheel cleaners contain stronger compounds that remove brake dust and other stubborn debris.

While not as effective as most wheel cleaners, dish detergent is a common at-home option to try before using stronger methods to clean.

Vinegar

A variety of vinegar-based solutions work for cleaning your wheels. We touched on several of the most effective methods on this post. The most basic method involves mixing vinegar with water.

Vinegar has strong acidic properties, which is why we do not recommend that you apply it straight to your wheel. If you choose to use it, dilution with water or another base is necessary. Your car requires a thorough rinse down with water after using any acidic cleaner. Acidic solutions that linger will eat away at the clear coat that protects your rims.

Lemon juice and baking soda

Lemon juice is almost as acidic as vinegar, making it a viable all-natural cleaner for most surfaces. The addition of baking soda lowers the pH level of the solution. This decrease in acidity also decreases the likelihood of damage to paint or other corrodible surfaces. In addition, baking soda provides some grit that’ll help you remove grime through mechanical scrubbing.

Lemon juice may cause damage to your wheels, even with the addition of baking soda or another base. As a result of these drawbacks, you may prefer to forgo common household solutions and use products specifically designed for cleaning wheels.

Silicone lubricants

Some recommend silicone lubricants or degreasers for cleaning automotive wheels. While lubricants are effective at removing debris, we recommend that you do not use the product to clean your wheels. These contain compounds meant to lubricate – and you certainly do not want brakes that slip. Any solution lingering on the wheel works against your brakes. Additionally, silicone lubricant or degreaser overspray damages your paint over time.

The use of commercially produced products

Again, we always recommend the use of commercially produced products for car detailing applications – whether it’s for your wheels or any other area of the vehicle. These solutions are specifically engineered to provide the safest and best results possible.  Commercially produced products contain ingredients that are more effective than anything you can mix up at home.

Science behind wheel cleaners

Before cleaning off brake dust, understand the science behind wheel cleaners. They come in a variety of options. Various cleaners activate using different methods; some working through mechanical scrubbing and the other breaking down chemical bonds on application.

Mechanical wheel cleaners

Wheel cleaners come in compound or polish forms that you manually apply. These stick to the surface and won’t run off the wheel through gravity like liquids do. Mechanical wheel cleaners are abrasive and activate through agitation with a sponge or a brush. Scrubbing the surface with a mechanical cleaner works the solution deep into the surface of the wheel, eventually lifting debris or brake dust that may linger.

Chemical wheel cleaners

Chemical wheel cleaners are the most common variety around. These begin working immediately on application, reacting with the debris that are found on the surface of your wheel. Traditional wheel cleaners use foaming agents and surfactants that lift, remove, or even dissolve brake dust using strong chemicals. Most debris can be wiped away with a towel or brush once the cleaner sits for a certain amount of time.

The various strengths of wheel cleaners

Chemical wheel cleaners come in a variety of pH levels while mechanical cleaners have a neutral pH value. The pH scale ranges from one to fourteen, with the lower values indicating greater acidity, and the highest values being alkaline or basic. Neutral pH levels are found in the middle, with values hovering around seven.

Most wheel cleaners are designed to be pH balanced to avoid damaging the protective coating that exists on rims. These neutrally based wheel cleaners are designed for average wheel cleaning with a limited amount of brake dust.

Alkaline, or all-purpose, wheel cleaners are more concentrated. These solutions are used for heavier accumulation of brake dust and can be diluted with some water as needed. These are regarded as the general-use wheel cleaner that most detailers use.

The most powerful wheel cleaners have low pH values. Acidic wheel cleaners are heavily concentrated products that almost always require dilution. They are designed for heavily embedded brake dust and debris that stick within your rim’s clear coat. Acidic wheel cleaners contain strong chemicals, and proper caution must be taken. We recommend wearing gloves and eye protection when applying these products. Also, work in a well-ventilated area to avoid potential fumes.

Acidic wheel cleaners should not linger on your wheel for extended amounts of time. Carefully monitor how long acidic products remain on your vehicle, and rinse thoroughly after application. These types of cleaners may eat away at your plastic spray bottles and nozzles over time – so only store these products in a container recommended for use with acids.

Know the surface you’re working with

Though you must take proper precautions when detailing your wheel area, you can work with confidence while using commercial products. A wheel cleaning solution exists for nearly any predicament. Important information is found on the back of the product you’re using. Read use instructions prior to cleaning.

Know the materials that comprise your rim before applying cleaning products. Surfaces have various resistance levels to strong chemicals. If you are unsure, consult your owner’s manual for this information.

Let’s dive into some pro tips to use for the job:

Plan ahead

Detailing wheels relies heavily on timing, which can be affected by outside temperature. Aim for ideal conditions outside. Consider the weather, what products you’ll need, how much time you want to spend, and where you’ll do the job ahead of the cleaning.

Time is on your side

Timing is crucial when using homemade, acidic solutions; in contrast, commercially produced tire cleaners are typically safer and forgiving. In fact, you should let commercially produced tire cleaning solutions with a high or neutral pH soak before wiping.

If you’re conducting a full-scale car detailing, apply your (non-acidic) wheel cleaner at the beginning of the process. Clean the rest of your vehicle before coming back to finish with your wheels. This soaking time allows the cleaner to have its full effect. 

Stay cool

Before applying any product, make sure your wheels are completely cool to the touch. Wait additional time if you recently drove your car or if it’s a hot day outside. Park your car in a shaded area and wait for the wheels to cool down if they’re hot. Hosing down each wheel with cool water will speed up the cooling process. Cleaner may dry up before it has a chance to take effect if you begin cleaning before the wheels are cool. Unrinsed cleaning residue could lead to damage.

Use two buckets for washing

You will notice that brake dust gets everywhere as soon as you begin scrubbing. Dipping your cleaning cloth, brush, or sponge back into a dirty bucket will reapply loose brake dust particles to the area that you’re trying to clean. Instead, fill one bucket filled with cleaning solution and dip your cleaning tools into it between scrubs. Have another water-filled bucket at the ready to access clean water for rinsing.

Target foaming wheel cleaners

Why foam? Watery solution trickles off your wheels quickly, while foamy solution will linger on your wheels. Timing is everything when detailing wheels, and you want the solution to have time to soak in to effectively clean. Foam sticks to your wheels better than an average liquid, giving your cleaning solution time to do its job.

Alternative tools to get the job done

Still having trouble removing baked on brake dust? Here is a list of alternative tools that professionals use to address stubborn debris:

Utilize a pressure washer

Baked on brake dust is stubborn, and a pressure washer is great at addressing these areas. Apply your choice of cleaner, then use a pressure washer to spray down the rim. Start off with low pressure and gradually increase as needed. If dust is not coming off with high pressure, reapply additional cleaner to the area and repeat the rinsing process.

The use of a dry-vapor steamer

Dry-vapor steamers are an industry favorite for interior detailing, but not many people realize that they can also be used to clean off brake dust. Dry-vapor steamers work by generating low moisture vapor that lifts dirt to the surface – where you can wipe it away with very little effort.

First, apply a cleaning solution and wait the recommended time for it to loosen the dirt. Then, use a dry-vapor steamer around the rim. Your cleaner’s chemical reaction combined with the dry-vapor steamer will effectively melt any brake dust. Repeat this process as needed.

Dry-vapor cleaning is arguably the most effective and safe cleaning method out there. This method requires very little scrubbing that could damage your wheel. Dry-vapor steamers are expensive, but they’re very much worth the purchase price if you detail your car on a regular basis. As an alternative, look for rentals or secondhand units if you’re trying to save some cash.

Brake dust erasers

Brake dust erasers, when combined with a cleaning solution, save the day against baked on brake dust. These remover pads use non-abrasive fibers that are optimized to attract brake dust – while keeping your wheel safe and scratch-free. The best part is you can track these down for a reasonable price and that they’re reusable!

Brake dust erasers are great tools for reaching hard-to-get areas within the wheel. Modern cars often feature futuristic wheel designs that have plenty of curves, nooks, and crannies in which dirt may hide. Brake dust erasers easily handle curves, corners, or lug nut cavities.

Regardless of what cleaning solution you use, we highly recommend that you pick up a brake dust eraser just in case. It’ll be a major help in cleaning off any stubborn, baked on brake dust.

Another one fights the [brake] dust!

You may feel that it’s too late to clean your wheels if you’ve never done so. In truth, wheels that have been neglected for a long time might have spots where the dust has corroded the wheel. Unfortunately, there isn’t too much you can do to solve this problem outside of replacing the rim. However, proper maintenance helps preserve your wheel’s lifespan and prevent further corrosion.

We recommend that you surface clean your wheels every two to three weeks, with a thorough deep clean every one to three months at minimum. Brake dust is a problem that’ll never go away; however, if you use these methods and some of the tools above, this typically cumbersome task becomes considerably easier. Your wheels and bank account will thank you!


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